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The doctors giving a new lease of life to FGM survivors

Living
 Dr Marci Bowers during an interview with the Standard at the Platinum Surgery Centre, Hurlingham, Nairobi [Elvis Ogina/Standard]

It is late on a Tuesday afternoon, and Dr Marci Bowers, Clitoraid’s Obstetrics/Gynaecology Surgeon, from the USA, and Dr Adan Abdullahi emerge out of the theatre of a surgery Clinic in Hurlingham, Nairobi.

The two doctors with a team of eight other doctors and a handful of caregivers have just completed clitoris reconstructive surgeries on 10 female genital mutilation survivors, the last batch of 50 surgeries slated for the four-day exercise.

Dr Marci Bowers graduated with a Medical degree in 1986 and later did her Residency in Obstetrics/Gynaecology at the University of Washington, Seattle in 1990.

Dr Abdullahi, says back at home, Dr Bowers has performed hundreds of reconstructive surgeries during her career, among them clitoral corrective procedures.

He says he was lucky to have crossed paths with Dr Bowers, one of the few doctors performing clitoral reconstructive surgery globally.

Dr Abdullahi says he developed an interest in the reconstructive procedure because “I come from a community that culturally practices FGM, and as a doctor, I knew there were no health benefits of the procedure, but in fact, it was harmful and deprived girls and women their womanhood.”

Now with help of Dr Bowers, Dr Abdullahi is overseeing the training of local doctors who can perform the delicate surgery on hundreds of victims who are on the waiting list.

Forty-seven-year-old, Patricia Naipanoi, an administrative assistant with a corporate firm, has been on the waiting list for the last four years.

“I missed my slot in the 2020 Mission Charity Camp due to Covid-19,” explains Naipanoi, a mother of four. She was among the 50 who successfully underwent the corrective surgery last year.

Dr Bowers says that with the increasing societal acceptance, and medical recognition, some FGM survivors have been travelling to California, where she is based to seek corrective surgery.

A new hope

“I believe in the power of visibility and education and after performing a few clitoral correction surgeries on immigrant survivors of FGM, I wanted to do more. After doing research on the mutilation studies, I found out that there were millions of victims in Africa who could not afford an air ticket and the over $1,000 cost of the procedure.”

She says that she first travelled on a charity mission to Burkina Faso, West Africa, but the response was not so positive despite the fact that the country had an anti-FGM law in place for many years.

Then she learnt from an immigrant Kenyan, that the country would be more responsive with over two million women and girls who had undergone the rite.

By now, she says, she had become an activist.

Dr Bowers is glad that her path crossed with Dr Abdullahi’s, who she says is one of the few surgeons in Kenya (worldwide too) who performs surgical reversal of FGM. Together, they came up with the Pink Project. One that performs free reversal surgeries on FGM survivors. 

 Dr Abdullahi Adan, Consultant : Plastic , Reconstructive and Aesthetic /General Surgeon at Platinum Surgery Centre [Elvis Ogina/Standard]

An extraordinary past

Marci Bowers, 61, was born Mark Bowers in Oak Park, Illinois, at the same hospital that gave the world Ernest Hemingway.

She was the target of bullies in high school — “because I was so slight and feminine appearing,” she says.

When Bowers transitioned at age 37 — while married and with three children — it cast a years-long chill on her relationship with her parents. It was not until Bowers’ father was dying of cancer that they reconciled.

Dr Abdallahi says, he bonded with Dr Bowers because they both stood for one universal belief and interest – bring dignity, happiness, joy and focus to people who were in emotional turmoil because their rights had been violated and abused.

“We draw our lines on not who we are, but what we believe in – boosting happiness is a big deal, and the belief in our work in Kenya is that FGM victims remain the most vulnerable citizens in the society, facing staggering rates of rights abuse and violence,” explains Dr Abdallahi.

New lease on life

besides adding value and bringing back dignity to victims of FGM, the two doctors are also training local doctors to perform clitoris reconstruction surgeries.

“Today I am free, I am confident, and of course for the first time in my life, I feel dignified and happy having recovered a part of me that was brutally ripped off me at the age of 13,” says Rukia Zubeda, from Tana River.

She was one of the lucky survivors to have been on the list of the 50 surgeries that were performed by the two doctors in this year’s charity camp in November.

Back at home, Dr Bowers has performed more than 500 clitoral restoration procedures for survivors of FGM immigrant survivors

Together, the two doctors have performed over 300 charity surgeries since Dr Bowers first travelled to Kenya in 2017 and followed it with another visit in 2018, before Covid-19 happened to challenge her travel for the next three years.

“The just concluded surgeries are the third of the Charity Mission Camp, an event we focused on turning into an annual event,” said Dr Abdallahi in the late 2022 interview.

He said Dr Bowers’s travels and surgeries are made possible through a partnership with San Francisco-based non-profit Clitoraid.

“These women have been mutilated in such an intimate part of their body, and Dr Bowers is so sensitive to how they feel and what they are trying to achieve,” added Dr Abdullahi.

 

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